Typically 3 surgeons and 1 anesthesiologist are involved, with up to 4 supporting nurses. The surgical procedure is very demanding and ranges from 4 up to 18 hours depending on outcome. Numerous anastomoses and sutures, and many disconnections and reconnections of abdominal and hepatic tissue, must be made for the transplant to succeed, requiring an eligible recipient and a well-calibrated live or cadaveric donor match. By any standard, hepatic transplantation is a major surgical procedure with an appreciable degree of risk.
Before transplantation, liver support therapy might be indicated (bridging-to-transplantation). Artificial liver support like liver dialysis or bioartificial liver support concepts are currently under preclinical and clinical evaluation. Virtually all liver transplants are done in an orthotopic fashion, that is, the native liver is removed and the new liver is placed in the same anatomic location. The transplant operation can be conceptualized as consisting of the hepatectomy (liver removal) phase, the anhepatic (no liver) phase, and the postimplantation phase. The operation is done through a large incision in the upper abdomen. The hepatectomy involves division of all ligamentous attachments to the liver, as well as the common bile duct, hepatic artery, hepatic vein and portal vein. Usually, the retrohepatic portion of the inferior vena cava is removed along with the liver, although an alternative technique preserves the recipient's vena cava ("piggyback" technique).
The donor's blood in the liver will be replaced by an ice-cold organ storage solution, such as UW (Viaspan) or HTK until the allograft liver is implanted. Implantation involves anastomoses (connections) of the inferior vena cava, portal vein, and hepatic artery. After blood flow is restored to the new liver, the biliary (bile duct) anastomosis is constructed, either to the recipient's own bile duct or to the small intestine. The surgery usually takes between five and six hours, but may be longer or shorter due to the difficulty of the operation and the experience of the surgeon.
The large majority of liver transplants use the entire liver from a non-living donor for the transplant, particularly for adult recipients. A major advance in pediatric liver transplantation was the development of reduced size liver transplantation, in which a portion of an adult liver is used for an infant or small child. Further developments in this area included split liver transplantation, in which one liver is used for transplants for two recipients, and living donor liver transplantation, in which a portion of a healthy person's liver is removed and used as the allograft. Living donor liver transplantation for pediatric recipients involves removal of approximately 20% of the liver (Couinaud segments 2 and 3).
Further advance in liver transplant involves only resection of the lobe of the liver involved in tumors and the tumor-free lobe remains within the recipient. This speeds up the recovery and the patient stay in the hospital quickly shortens to within 5–7 days.
Many major medical centers are now using radiofrequency ablation of the liver tumor as a bridge while awaiting for liver transplantation. This technique has not been used universally and further investigation is warranted.